I grew up in the working class town of Sunderland, North East England. It is a cold harsh place, filled with closed coalmines, discontinued steel works, a defunct ship building industry, heavy drinkers and aggressive soccer fans.
At school there were kids who burnt down classrooms and bullied others relentlessly. The bullying was meted out to those that were small, slow or odd, which counted as nearly everyone. Peter, who was Pakistani, was the butt of racial taunts. James was forced to the ground and made to eat smokey bacon flavored crisps, because he was a Jew. I received my fair share of taunts and bullying, but despite my unruly hair and big nose no one ever asked if I was a Jew and I never ‘came out,’ fearing the bullying and the bacon flavored crisps.
My home life was thick with silences and an expectation that I do housework rather than homework. My father was a distant figure; emotionally and geographically. He had skipped the country when I was eight to start a new life in Australia. He sent a clay platypus once in the mail and a few letters. Occasionally I asked my mother about her childhood, but when the questions remained consistently unanswered, I gave up asking and made do with the few facts I had; her mother had a strong European accent, baked honey cakes, painted endless water colours and was tricky to please. Her father had worked at the Raleigh bicycle factory, thought people were following him all the time and died when she was 12.
My sister and I found sanctuary from my mother’s sadness at my aunt and uncle’s house in Birmingham during school holidays. We were shy but curious at the Shabbos dinner table and we giggled at shule on Saturdays, embarrassed that we didn’t understand what was going on. My aunt and uncle’s family life seemed linked inextricably with food, love and the incantation of blessings and hilarious stories told by our cousins. The atmosphere of irreverence mixed with strong Jewish tradition was so different from our home that it felt like a different planet.
As the school years wore on my ambition of becoming a funny poet seemed as insurmountable as finding happiness at home. After I had spectacularly and inevitably failed year 12, I left town with an ‘unsuitable man’, a few belongings and headed into a hedonistic two year sojourn through Europe. I didn’t go back home to Sunderland when the relationship with ‘the unsuitable man’ ended, I came instead to Australia. I arrived with a very small bag of possessions, but a ton of emotional baggage, which I would later mine as a stand up comic.
I married a lawyer not long after I arrived in Australia; I was 22 and a long, long way from home. I got work as a chef and then underook a degree in Community Development. In 2004 my first child started primary school and after a decade of loneliness that had almost set in like rot, I began to make friends, some of whom were Jewish.
My Jewish friends had a casual way of talking about being Jewish, about youth groups they had gone to, about Passovers , Chanukah celebrations and bat mizfahs. We were invited to Passovers, long tables pulled together, hagadahs for everyone , the youngest children rushing around the house looking for the afikomen at the end of the night. The stories, the laughter, the friendships were woven together with blessings, good food and the warmth of chicken soup. A joke evolved that because we live in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne the one who drew the short straw would be schlepping south side to get the channukah candles and dreidels. We referred to our selves in time as The Fabled Jews of the North as opposed to the Southside Jews who live in the Bagel Belt.
I felt slightly awkward in the early years of these gatherings and wondered if I would be seen as a fraud because I didn’t know how to prepare a Seder table and because I couldn’t say blessings without having them written out phonetically. And I felt cautious because I had never had friends who talked about being Jewish without looking over their shoulders for fear of the bacon flavored crisp reprisal.
Seven years ago on one of her annual trips, my Mother showed me a hand written copy of her father’s family tree. Big, slow tears fell as I saw the words above her fathers’ uncles and aunts names : Died Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Like a bolt, the jigsaw pieces fell into place; my grand parents were holocaust refugees. They had been wealthy Austrian and German Jews who lost everything. My mother’s childhood and in turn mine was haunted by their unspoken loss. Her father had committed suicide and my grandmother was mentally unstable. Together we searched on the Yad Vashem website trying to piece things together.
More things fell into place. Of course I’m a comedian it’s in my DNA! Of course I feed my family excessive amounts of food. Of course I’m an overbearing mother. Of course my own mother was silent when I asked her about her childhood, because there was no space for the pain of that loss. Her parents’ fear about being Jewish had been passed on to her and from her to me.
When I saw my family tree I felt a sense of duty washing over me, a sense of deep understanding that my spirit and my blood are Jewish. I felt I had to honor my family who perished. So I ‘came out’ after nearly 50 years, as a Jew.
And what better place to ‘come out’ than in Melbourne, with all of its diverse ways to be Jewish. Museums and memorials celebrate and commentate the living and the dead, 60 plus synagogues, Jewish writers and Jewish music festivals, radio station, schools, Yiddish centers and kindergartens, newspapers, art galleries and television shows.
In 2015 I created the Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival. Suddenly I was schlepping Southside every week, schmoozing with Jews, getting people on board, finding performers, venues, funding, media. The festival had 59 performers across six locations in ten events, a celebration of comedy, cabaret literature and laughter through culture. The festival became a homage to my family who had died. And through it I found my way to be openly Jewish.
My life changed, I sat in the Glen Eira town hall on Yom HaShoah and didn’t need to explain the sadness, the sense of loss, but just wept slow, sad tears. I gave my eldest daughter a batmizfah, celebrating her life and her Judaism. I do a weekly radio show called Kvetch with Sless, and I’m a proud congregant at the East Melbourne Synagogue. In Melbourne and there are 56, 000 Jews and I am, happy and proud to say, I am one of them.
Justine Sless is a comedian and Creative Director of Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival, Presenter on Jair Radio.
Find her at justinesless.com